Schenectady County

DSIC seeks to put rifts behind

The street-sweeping and flower-planting will stay, but the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp. wi
Executive director of Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation James J. Salengo, on State Street Wednesday.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Executive director of Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation James J. Salengo, on State Street Wednesday.

The street-sweeping and flower-planting will stay, but the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp. will also throw itself into promoting its businesses, after a year of controversy in which many business owners said they get nothing from the organization that taxes them.

“My background is in marketing, so I’m really coming into this wanting to do that side of it,” said the group’s new executive director, James Salengo, after Wednesday’s DSIC annual meeting. “So I agree. We can do a better job and we will do a better job.”

Roughly a third of the agency’s members gathered early Wednesday for the annual meeting, at which Salengo said DSIC serves a “vital role” in the downtown.

He emphasized the positive — an increase in visitors parking in the daytime lots downtown, repeat business from college students after a free event this spring and a successful restaurant week promotion in which nearly half the diners were new customers.

“We are building momentum,” he said.

The agency also picked up 960 cubic yards of litter (the equivalent of 30 Dumpsters) last year, a tribute to the amount of work needed to keep the downtown looking clean.

But Salengo acknowledged that his members are not all satisfied with his agency, particularly with the way in which the DSIC leaders are chosen and the district’s tax is assessed.

He said the agency will at least discuss changes in response to both criticisms.

“There seems to have been some good progress made on looking at the assessment [tax],” he said. “The decision has been made that it’s important to look at it.”

The agency will hire an independent consultant to offer options on new formulas for spreading out the tax burden. But Salengo noted that most critics of the tax don’t want a new formula — they simply say they aren’t getting enough in return for their money.

Part of the answer, he said, is to do more to market the businesses. He’s trying to add businesses to existing programs as a package deal — dinner and a show after a trolley tour, for example — and create new promotions that could draw customers to the area.

He warned that big events, like the SummerNight program that will be held Friday, are too expensive to put on regularly.

“Events are great, but we don’t have the staff or resources to be a full event organizer,” he said. “I’m brainstorming.”

expecting success

That’s all some business owners needed to hear. Allan Anderson, who owns Media Well Done on Jay Street, is already predicting that Salengo will please even the most disaffected owners when he rolls out his marketing campaigns.

“I have seen what his work has done in downtown Albany for the Albany BID,” Anderson said. “Providing he gets the cooperation here, I guarantee you at the next big meeting people will be saying, ‘I didn’t think it would work but it did.’”

Anderson cited two of Salengo’s Albany projects, a metal sculpture exhibit that got visitors to walk through the entire downtown and a banner program with slogans describing the downtown, to fight negative perceptions of the area. Salengo was hired for the Schenectady job in April.

“I expect a lot of that to be proposed here,” Anderson said. “The DSIC being something that’s a little more politically controlled than a true BID, he may need to work a bit, but I think some of it will come through. It will be a lot more than they’ve seen before.”

Kathy Fitzmaurice, who owns the Katbird Shop on Liberty Street, said promotions would be “a good start.”

But she still wasn’t thrilled by the annual meeting.

“Which streets do you hear at the meetings? Jay, State. Even the flower beds stop there,” she said. “It’s still focused on a very small portion of the assessment district.”

She’s beginning to believe that the decorations in the heart of downtown actually hurt the rest of the DSIC businesses.

“People would walk to where the flowers ended and then they’d stop,” she said. “It sends a message — there’s nothing beyond this point.”

As for the smoldering issue of leadership at the DSIC, nothing has been resolved. The Schenectady City Council is still split, 3-3, over who should be appointed to the board. Many business owners feel they should have a say in that decision, but the mayor insists that he should keep that power.

Salengo said a committee is considering a recommendation process or a membership vote to help guide the council’s decision. The committee is also weighing the idea of increasing the size of the board. The mayor is staunchly opposed to that, and the agency would need City Council support to make such changes.

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